behind the music

‘Connecting kids with who they are’: Why school diversity advocates are optimistic about Chancellor Richard Carranza

PHOTO: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office
Advocates for culturally relevant education practices hope Richard Carranza will support their efforts.

By the time Tony Ozuna was a sophomore in Tuscon, Arizona, he had little passion for school — but he loved the mariachi music his mother blasted in his home and his father played professionally.

So after a social studies teacher at his high school started a mariachi group that toured the city in sharp suits, Ozuna eagerly auditioned to play the vihuela, a small guitar.

It proved to be a turning point in Ozuna’s life. While some of his friends got caught up in the wrong crowds, Ozuna was too busy with practice, sometimes dragging on until 9 p.m., to find trouble for himself. To be part of the group, his mariachi teacher insisted that he keep up his grades, show up to class, and behave both in school and out.

“He basically got me straightened out,” said Ozuna, who now leads his own mariachi group at a Chicago school. “I don’t know where I would be today without mariachi.”

That teacher was Richard Carranza, who will become chancellor of New York City schools on April 2. Launching the mariachi as a novice teacher at Pueblo Magnet High School turned into a life-changing moment for Carranza, too. He was inspired to become a school leader because of snide comments from district leaders while he developed class materials and wrote music compositions for his band.

“There was a palpable, racist antithesis to the establishment of mariachi curriculum,” he told a documentary filmmaker. “How can you be against connecting kids with who they are?”

Carranza took that lesson with him to San Francisco, where he oversaw an expansion of ethnic studies as superintendent, and to his next position as head of schools in Houston, where he proposed an LGBTQ curriculum that would give students “a bigger picture of who we are as America.”

In New York City, advocates who have pushed for more diverse and inclusive schools are hopeful Carranza’s record will carry over. While a grassroots movement has forced Mayor Bill de Blasio to reckon with deep-seeded segregation in the country’s largest school system, many say that work needs to go beyond enrollment changes that move students around. For them, culturally relevant education practices — those that focus on classroom materials, the makeup of teachers and administrators, and how students are disciplined — are key to achieving integration.

“His orientation towards this type of work, towards segregation and integration, seems a lot more open,” said Matt Gonzales, who advocates for school diversity with the nonprofit New York Appleseed. “I think it’s a real huge opportunity to take advantage of the moment we’re in right now.”

What culturally relevant schools do differently

A fight broke out recently in the hallway of Andrea Colon’s high school, Rockaway Park High School for Environmental Sustainability in Queens. She watched as administrators there tried in vain to break it up, and then resorted to calling police. They came with guns at their sides and cuffed the students, she said.

“It’s traumatizing,” said Colon, an organizer with the nonprofit Rockaway Youth Taskforce. “School is supposed to be an environment where you learn.”

Different approaches to school safety and student discipline are a major piece of the reforms that advocates say are needed as the city tries to integrate. In New York City and across the country, students of color are punished more often — and more harshly — than their white peers. Though 27 percent of city students are black, they accounted for about 47 percent of all suspensions last school year.

On the heels of a fatal school stabbing in the Bronx earlier this year, and the Parkland, Florida school shooting, the debate around discipline and safety has been front and center. But culturally relevant schools pay attention to more than suspension rates and arrests.

They also make sure students of all identities are reflected in what is taught and how it’s taught — and who teaches it. Advocates say that means focusing on the materials used in class, as well as hiring teachers and school leaders who share similar backgrounds as their students. There is evidence that having a teacher who resembles them can boost students’ test scores, and lead to higher expectations of what they can accomplish.

Derrick Owens has two daughters in elementary school in Harlem. He has pored over their textbooks and scouted the school walls for pictures of inspirational leaders who are black, just like his children, only to be left disappointed.

“This is something that’s important,” he said. “There’s nothing about them.”

A recent spate of incidents in city schools highlights how urgently those changes are needed, advocates say: This winter alone, an elementary school teacher flagged a test-prep passage that seemed to portray the confederate leader Robert E. Lee in a sympathetic light. A PTA president in Brooklyn sent out a fundraising flyer featuring performers in blackface. And a principal was accused of barring lessons about the Harlem Renaissance in a school where practically all students are black or Hispanic.

“It’s time now,” Owens said. “This is something that is for the kids. It’s for the teachers, and it’s for parents.”

What Carranza has done elsewhere

Carranza saw a need to serve Latino students better early in his career, one of the reasons he started the mariachi band.

“I realized there was an absence of arts in the school — culturally relevant arts,” he said at a press conference announcing his appointment as chancellor in New York City.

When he made the jump to San Francisco, he commissioned a study of a pilot program in cultural studies at city high schools. The results stunned Stanford researchers and school board members: Students who completed the class were significantly less likely to miss school, had a higher grade point average and improved their test scores.

The program launched before Carranza became superintendent in 2012, but former school board member Sandra Lee Fewer said he took it full scale, offering the course in every high school, making it count towards graduation, and later helping start a similar program in LGBTQ studies.

“It’s something he really believes in,” Fewer said. “It was personal.”

In 2016, Carranza was tapped to lead Houston schools, where some parents have been frustrated by his “lack of leadership” around making ethnic studies a priority, said Deyadira Arellano, an advocate for Mexican-American studies in schools.

When she was considering high schools for her son, Arellano zeroed-in on one that promised a Mexican-American studies course in partnership with a local college. Once he enrolled, though, Arellano said she was disappointed to find the class had been cut.

During his short tenure in Texas, Carranza faced an onslaught of challenges, from the devastation of Hurricane Harvey to potential state takeover of Houston schools and a $115 million budget gap. Still, Arellano said there are simple things he could have done. In some schools, only high-performing students are able to take Mexican-American Studies, she said, but Carranza could have told principals to change that.

“If you think it’s important, why doesn’t everyone have access to take this class?” she asked.

Will de Blasio let him?

It won’t be solely up to Carranza whether New York City goes further to meet advocates’ demands around integration and diversity. That is also up to his boss: Mayor de Blasio, who has control over the school system. In his search for a new chancellor, de Blasio made it clear he was looking for someone to stay the course laid out by the retiring chief of schools, Carmen Fariña.

De Blasio, who calls his education agenda “Equity and Access for All,” has championed some of the same policies advocates have clamored for. During his tenure, the education department has tried to dramatically reduce suspensions, added guidance counselors in needy districts, and released a plan to encourage more school diversity.

But he — and Fariña — have often stumbled. Faced with pressure from advocates to do more to integrate schools, de Blasio has said he can’t “wipe away 400 years of American history.” Fariña once suggested pen pals between rich and poor schools could be part of the city’s solution. And after declaring it unacceptable that few students of color are admitted to the city’s most elite high schools, the de Blasio administration has only doubled-down on diversity initiatives that have failed to move the needle.

Parents with the advocacy group Coalition for Educational Justice have called for anti-bias training for all city teachers. So far, less than half a percent of more than 76,000 teachers have gone through the course that the coalition recommends — though city officials note that individual schools and districts often offer their own training.

“I think his track record shows that he’s been able to do some really innovative work in San Francisco, and Tucson, and other places he’s worked,” said Gonzales, the advocate with New York Appleseed. “The only thing is whether Mayor de Blasio will let him take the schools and lets him run with them.”

here's the plan

After long wait, de Blasio backs plan to overhaul admissions at New York City’s elite high schools

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Eric Contreras is stepping down as principal of Stuyvesant High School.

After sustained pressure from advocates, Mayor Bill de Blasio is backing a two-step plan to reform admissions at eight of the city’s elite high schools and endorsing a specific replacement for the single-test admissions system.

The city’s specialized high schools — considered some of the crown jewels of New York City’s education system — accept students based on a single test score. Over the last decade, they have come under fire for offering admissions to few students of color: While two-thirds of city students are black or Hispanic, only about 10 percent of admissions offers to those schools go to black or Hispanic students.

De Blasio’s solution, laid out in an op-ed in Chalkbeat, would set aside 20 percent of the seats at the eight schools for students from low-income families starting next school year. Students who just missed the test score cut-off would be able to earn one of those set-aside seats through the longstanding “Discovery” program. Just 4 percent of seats were offered through that program in 2017.

The mayor also said he plans to push state lawmakers to change a law that requires admission at three of the schools to be decided by a single test score. That’s something de Blasio campaigned for during his run for mayor in 2014 but hasn’t made a priority since.

Most significantly, de Blasio says for the first time that he backs a system of replacing the admissions test with a system that picks students based on their middle school class rank and state test scores. The middle-school rank component is especially notable, as an NYU Steinhardt report found that the only way to really change the makeup of the elite high schools would be to guarantee admission to the top 10 percent of students at every middle school.

If all of these changes were implemented, de Blasio says that 45 percent of the student bodies at the eight high schools would be black or Latino.

Together, the proposals reflect the most specific plan yet to change a system that, year after year, becomes a symbol of New York City’s racially divided schools. But the changes de Blasio is proposing won’t come easily — and might not come at all.

The part of the plan that the city is promising to do on its own, expand the Discovery program, will only modestly improve diversity by the city’s own admission. And the plan’s more ambitious elements would require buy-in from state lawmakers who have repeatedly resisted de Blasio’s agenda and attempts to change admissions rules.

Meanwhile, the mayor’s plan does not include a move that many legal experts consider to be low-hanging fruit: changing the admissions rules at five of the eight schools without state approval.

While the city’s official position has long been that admissions at all eight schools are set by law, only three schools — Stuyvesant High School, Bronx High School of Science, and Brooklyn Technical High School — are specifically mentioned, leaving room for the city to reclassify the others. (De Blasio recently said he would ask lawyers about that change, but has not signaled he plans to act.)

The Discovery program has also proved problematic for de Blasio, in part because it is open to all low-income students — something that is not equivalent to black or Hispanic in New York City. The de Blasio administration has already tripled the program’s size since taking office, but its share of black and Latino students has also shrunk.

A lot of questions about the plan remain unanswered. It’s not clear whether the 20 percent of set-aside seats will be spread across the eight schools evenly, for one, or whether some schools like Stuyvesant will have fewer seats earmarked for Discovery. De Blasio doesn’t explain exactly how an admissions system reliant on middle-school grades and standardized test scores would work.

It’s also unclear how the mayor plans to push against opposition from alumni groups and parents who may worry that changing the admissions rules will lower academic standards, though his rhetoric was sharp in the op-ed.

“Anyone who tells you this is somehow going to lower the standard at these schools is buying into a false and damaging narrative,” de Blasio wrote. “It’s a narrative that traps students in a grossly unfair environment, asks them to live with the consequences, and actually blames them for it.”

So far, de Blasio’s incremental steps to boost diversity at specialized high schools have made little change to the overall student body — and therefore garnered little pushback.

It’s unclear whether the lackluster results caused him to switch strategies. More recently, de Blasio has also been under pressure to address school segregation in the city as a whole.

He may also have been pushed by his new schools chancellor, who has been outspoken on the subject since taking the helm of the school system about two months ago. Chancellor Richard Carranza has been talking about the issue since his very first media interview, and has repeatedly hinted that he is interested in changing their admissions process.

“From my perspective it’s not OK to have a public school in a city as diverse… and that you have only 10 African-American students in a high school,” Carranza said in April. “So I’m looking at that, absolutely.”

sorting the students

Mayor Bill de Blasio: Our specialized schools have a diversity problem. Let’s fix it.

PHOTO: Mayoral Photography Office
Mayor Bill de Blasio hosts a town hall in Brooklyn in October.

I visit schools across this city and it never fails to energize me. The talent out there is outstanding. The students overflow with promise. But many of the smart kids I meet aren’t getting in to our city’s most prestigious high schools. In fact, they’re being locked out.

The problem is clear. Eight of our most renowned high schools – including Stuyvesant High School, Bronx High School of Science and Brooklyn Technical High School – rely on a single, high-stakes exam. The Specialized High School Admissions Test isn’t just flawed – it’s a roadblock to justice, progress and academic excellence.

If we want this to be the fairest big city in America, we need to scrap the SHSAT and start over.

Let’s select students for our top public high schools in a manner that best reflects the talent these students have, and the reality of who lives in New York City. Let’s have top-flight public high schools that are fair and represent the highest academic standards.

Right now, we are living with monumental injustice. The prestigious high schools make 5,000 admissions offers to incoming ninth-graders. Yet, this year just 172 black students and 298 Latino students received offers. This happened in a city where two out of every three eighth-graders in our public schools are Latino or black.

There’s also a geographic problem. There are almost 600 middle schools citywide. Yet, half the students admitted to the specialized high schools last year came from just 21 of those schools. For a perfect illustration of disparity: Just 14 percent of students at Bronx Science come from the Bronx.

Can anyone defend this? Can anyone look the parent of a Latino or black child in the eye and tell them their precious daughter or son has an equal chance to get into one of their city’s best high schools? Can anyone say this is the America we signed up for?

Our best colleges don’t select students this way. Our top-level graduate schools don’t. There are important reasons why. Some people are good at taking tests, but earn poor grades. Other people struggle with testing, but achieve top grades. The best educational minds get it. You can’t write a single test that captures the full reality of a person.

A single, high-stakes exam is also unfair to students whose families cannot afford, or may not even know about, the availability of test preparation tutors and courses. Now, I’d like to stop and say, I admire the many families who scrape and save to pay for test prep. They are trying in every way to support their children.

But let’s ask ourselves: Why should families who can ill afford test prep have to spend their money on it? Why should families who can easily afford test prep have an advantage over those that cannot?

My administration has been working to give a wider range of excellent students a fair shot at the specialized high schools. Now we are going to go further. Starting in September 2019, we’ll expand the Discovery Program to offer 20 percent of specialized high school seats to economically disadvantaged students who just missed the test cut-off.

This will immediately bring a wider variety of high-performing students, from a wider number of middle schools, to the specialized high schools. For example, the percentage of black and Latino students receiving offers will almost double, to around 16 percent from around 9 percent. The number of middle schools represented will go from around 310 to around 400.

This will also address a fundamental illogic baked into the high-stakes test. A great score and you might be in, but beware a point too low and you might be out. Now, a disadvantaged student who is just a point or two shy of the cut-off won’t be blocked from a great educational opportunity.

For a deeper solution, we will fight alongside our partners in the Assembly and Senate to replace the SHSAT with a new admissions process, selecting students based on a combination of the student’s rank in their middle school and their results in the statewide tests that all middle school children take.

With these reforms, we expect our premier public high schools to start looking like New York City. Approximately 45 percent of students would be Latino or black. As an example of growing geographical fairness, we will quadruple the number of Bronx students admitted.

I’ve talked a lot about bringing equity and excellence to our schools. This new admissions process will give every student in every middle school a fair shot. That’s equity. The new process will ask students to demonstrate hard work over time, and show brilliance in a variety of subjects. That’s excellence.

Anyone who tells you this is somehow going to lower the standard at these schools is buying into a false and damaging narrative. It’s a narrative that traps students in a grossly unfair environment, asks them to live with the consequences, and actually blames them for it. This perpetuates a dangerous and disgusting myth.

So let me be clear. The new system we’re fighting for will raise the bar at the specialized high schools in every way. The pool of talent is going to expand widely and rapidly. That’s going to up the level of competition. The students who emerge from the new process will make these schools even stronger.

They will also make our society stronger. Our most prestigious public high schools aren’t just routes to opportunity for deserving students and their families. They are incubators for the leaders and innovators of tomorrow. The kind of high schools we have today, will determine the kind of New York City we will have tomorrow.

Bill de Blasio is the mayor of New York City.